(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1962 edition)
3.5/5 (Collated rating: Good)
The 1950s stories in Philip José Farmer’s collection Strange Relations (1960) rekindled my interest in in his earlier work. Yes, I want odd stories about hard-shelled, hilltop living, female-only womb aliens who fertilize themselves via roving mobile “male” objects whom they capture and thrust into their womb-spaces. But, there is not an author whom I have more polarizing relationship with…. Outside of the 50s stories I’ve had no success with his work—readers of the site will know my views on Traitor to the Living (1972), To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971), and the latter novel’s endlessly bland and bloated sequels. I recently read the novel version of Night of Light (1966), based on the 1957 story by the same name, and will thus dabble eventually in more of his 60s work.
However, the three 50s novellas in The Alley God (1962) exploring Farmer’s favorite themes of sex and societal mores, do not necessarily demonstrate Farmer at his best but they definitely are intriguing enough to track down more!
Recommended for fans of inventive 50s SF.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*as always, spoilers*)
“The Alley Man” (1959), novella, 3.5/5 (Good): Nominated for the 1960 Hugo award for Best Short Fiction. I can imagine that this is a polarizing story…. Old Man Paley lives on the outskirts of an American city with his two mistresses Gummy and Deena, ekes out a living looking through trash, attempts to avoid being sent to the “puzzle house” (mental facility), abuses his mistresses, and consumes large amounts of beer. Old Man believes he’s the last pure-blooded paleolithic man (hence Paley) and and fantasizes that there’s a way out for the last Neanderthal. Deena condemns these fantasies of potential deliverance: “‘….all this stuff about the lost hat of Old King,” continued Deena, “and how it you ever find it you can break the spell that keeps you so-called Neanderthals on the dumpheaps and in the alleys, is farbage […]'” (15).
Soon a young graduate student named Dorothy arrives and attempts to befriend Paley for her research project. And Paley reciprocates, but, Dorothy’s attempts at “research” are over the line and manipulative despite the fact that she might really care for him….
Nicholas Ruddick in The Fire In the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel (Weseleyan U. Press, 2009) suggests that Old Man Paley represents oppressed minorities who live on the outskirts of American urban society (4). This conclusion disturbs as Paley’s commits violence against women and is easily deluded by thoughts planted into his head by the white woman outsider. Equating these types of traits with minorities is very problematic…. Likewise, Dorothy does sort of admire Paley despite his abuse of Gummy and Paley. Are we supposed to secretly respect Paley? Or, is he the profoundly flawed antihero type?
Ultimately, this is an odd but intriguing story that shows Farmer’s take on a bland SF theme—a prehistoric (or perhaps it’s all a delusion) man in the present.
“The Captain’s Daughter” (variant title: “Strange Compulsion”) (1953), novella, 3.25/5 (Average): Starts pure pulp, transforms into pure Philip José Farmer. However, an odd epilogue pulls all the parts together in a neat package smacks of editorial “interference” i.e. “if you want to get it published you need to stick this on the end.” This story is about a PSRTD: parasitic sexually and religiously transmitted disease. Remember, we’re talking about the early 1950s…
Dr. Gaulers and his assistant Rhoda Tu are called to investigate a strange occurrence on the spaceship Erkling under the command of Captain Everlake: a member of the crew has disappeared! Likewise, Captain Everlake’s daughter Debby is afflicted with odd symptoms: “I still feel like I am going to burst” (63) she proclaims, with a deeply unsettling aroma of fish… Her relationship with her father perplexes the doctor. Gaulers falls in love with Debby despite her ailments. He is unable to find the root of the illness. Soon the narrative utterly shifts gears from the spaceship to the religions and mores of Moon cults…
The crew, perhaps on the paranoid side, reveals to Gaulers the existence of a Moon cult—with various rituals involving rings and virgins and “pageants which depicted the persecution and martyrdom of Victor Remoh” (91)—which Captain Everlake and his daughter are members. And through a watery medium in religious excitement and the more carnal contact of sex, a certain parasites finds a happy home.
Despite the unusual 50s topics, the story feels very much like a rambling pulp adventure. The story lacks cohesion with some of the more interesting threads, for potential example psychiatric treatment, undeveloped. The happy-go-lucky epilogue (editorial insistence?) undermines the unsettling nature of a PSRTD!
“The God Business” (1954), novella, 3.5/5 (Good) starts with a bang, “It was the first time that the U.S. Marines had ever been routed with water pistols” (11). A new God appears in Illinois and transforms the Illinois River into an intoxicating and transformative “Brew.” The landscape around the river is turned completely on its head, odd individuals engage in orgies, odd rituals and mythologies take seed, all who drink the Brew engage in Bacchic delights… Alice Lewis, a “beautiful” army major, and Mr. Temper (a balding veteran with a teeth plate whose one-time professor is now the “God”) are sent into the transformed zone to fine a way to revert the transformation…. “The God Business” is told with real energy and excitement, it is a rambunctious and bizarre journey. And yes, Farmer engages with his common themes: religion and sex, religion and sex.
(David Hardy’s bland cover for the 1970 edition)
(Uncredited silly cover for the 1972 edition)
(Rik Lina’s cover for the 1973 Dutch edition)